Portions

How 'food porn' marketing of health foods misleads us towards temptation

We see them on social media every day - gorgeous food photos, stacked and styled to perfection with delicious looking fresh ingredients. But are these artistic creations of fritters, stacks, smoothies and bowls really good for us? If we are using these beautiful bowls of goodness as inspiration for our daily meals are we doing ourselves a favour or doing more harm than good? 

I am relatively new to Instagram, but I feel more and more concerned about the way nutritious foods are portrayed and promoted. Others share my concerns!  Nina Mills from What's for Eats (an experienced Instagrammer!) has written Why I post food photos on Instagram that is well worth a read and I certainly share many of her sentiments. 

Below are some things to think about as you scroll through your favourite food photos.....

Is that really healthy?

The two health food photos that frustrate me the most are breakfast related – pancakes and smoothie bowls. Although those high protein maple and berry pancakes look amazing and sound super-healthy, if you replicated this at home you may be shocked at the sugar content. Same for smoothie bowls – some of the ingredients may be nutritious, but there is also often a lot of hidden sugars. Nut butters, seeds, dried fruit, coconut, avocado…..all nutritious ingredients but the energy can quickly add up. Natural sugar is still sugar (think maple syrup, rice malt syrup, agave, etc.) and not a more nutritious substitute for table sugar. Your protein bliss balls washed down with a cacao salted caramel smoothie could very well be equivalent to breakfast and lunch put together!  *You can read more about natural sugars in my blog post 'The Great Sugar Con....'

Size matters

Let’s face it, most Instagram serves are not small. Unless you are a 120kg+ rugby player, that plate may not be the best amount for you.  Fine dining portions don't always look as enticing as a platter-sized meal.  Large portions that look tasty can make healthy food more appealing, but the serves depicted are not going to suit everyone. 

Eating well can be boring

I don’t tend to share photos of my daily breakfast. A standard bowl of porridge with yoghurt and fruit/nuts is probably not going to create too much excitement on Instagram. We want to see fun and interesting food that excites our tastebuds!  But as Nina mentions in her post, seeing images of everyday foods can be useful to help us to feel ok when we aren't whipping up exotic dishes three times per day.

To eat well day-to-day, you don’t need to be making corn fritters with avocado salsa every morning. Social media images can create pressure on people to spend hours in the kitchen using expensive ingredients. As much as I hate to say it, healthy eating in most households is not particularly flamboyant, especially as part of a busy lifestyle. Many of us could put in the effort to make our meals a bit more exciting, but we don’t need the extravagance of healthy eating portrayals on social media. 

Social media can provide some great food inspiration, but don’t be blinded by the dazzle and hype. Think about what is in your food, your individual needs and food that makes you feel good - and enjoy an over-the-top over-styled Instagrammable feast now and then! 

Interested in nutrition?  I would love to send you free updates and recipes, just leave your details here.  You can also follow my pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or check out my Thoughts page for more articles like this.

Kids' party food - go healthy or sugar-laden free-for-all?

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This post has absolutely nothing to do with sports nutrition, as my nutrition focus has switched to kids party fare with my son's recent birthday.  If you have ever known a 5 year old, then you probably understand that when you are 5, birthdays are a big deal.  We had two small parties and co-ordination of catering was required for both.  My biggest dilemma when it came to planning was whether to go super healthy or stick with traditional.  As a dietitian I feel a responsibility to a degree to provide some nourishment, but then I don't want my kids to feel like their parties aren't quite as exciting and just full of everyday foods either. 

One party option was the local pub, a child-friendly venue with a fantastic playground and low-maintenance for the host parents, BUT as you would imagine, there were no date & chia balls or frozen fruit pops on the pub catering menu!  So my dilemma was this - have a party at home with the risk of inclement weather and 12 kinder kids and toddler siblings squashed into a space designed to really only cater well for 5 or 6......or head to the pub.  Home party means healthier menu, pub means typical party fare from packets and either fried or mostly pastry.

I was torn...the pub menu wasn't really negotiable, other than the additional fruit platter I could order.  I love a  party at home, but last year's proved to be challenging when it poured rain all day and we were stuck indoors.  However a home party allowed total control of the menu, and the preparation of at least a few healthy options.  I swung to and fro and deliberated on my decision, but in the end the low maintenance pub won out.

I know there may be some of you reading this who are horrified to think I would expose my children to such toxic food.  I also know there are many parents, and party venues, who go the whole distance when it comes to healthy parties - organic, raw, no sugar, no nuts*, no dairy.   That's great if you can make it exciting.  I am not sure that kids get quite as excited about high-fibre bran muffins as they would blue cupcakes with sprinkles!  Or maybe I'm not being creative enough??  I know for myself that many of the special memories of parties were related to the food.  If the food at a party is the same as what a child gets in their lunch box every day then it wouldn't be a party would it?   I believe in the fun of parties and enjoying special foods, especially when it comes to birthdays. 

*When catering for children you do need to be careful when it comes to nuts and other allergies.  There were two children out of 15 with nut allergies on the day, and avoiding nuts in party foods is pretty standard these days. 

So, the pub party food it was, although I couldn't help myself and ordered a fruit platter to go with it!  I didn't think the kids would touch the fruit, but to my surprise they actually had a good go at it.  And do you know what?  Even with all the high fat, processed foods available, most kids didn't actually eat that much of it.  Children seem to be so much better than adults at regulating intake, and have a great sense of hunger and appetite.  At a birthday party there are usually lots more exciting things to do than sit around eating all day.  So maybe that's the big tip for kids parties, make sure there are some activities on the go and they may not eat that much sugar anyway.  Oh, and you probably don't need to serve soft drink or juice.  Water is perfect, there is probably going to be enough sugar in everything else.  No soft drink also means no artificial colours too.

When it comes to parties, I do have a concern about the amount of artificial additives consumed by kids, so my effort to make the party fare healthier was to use natural food colourings and use lollies in the lolly bags without added flavours/colourings.  The lollies were easy, but the natural food colourings were a new experience, especially with my history of regular cake making and use of super-concentrated food colourings.  My Octonauts Amazon Adventure cake, as requested by my son about 6 months prior to his party, required both blue and green food colouring.  One word to describe natural food colourings - pale.  Unless you use almost the whole bottle at $10 a pop.  In the end, I kept on adding and managed to get a reasonable colour, see below (minus the Octonauts who were yet to be added).

Now for the second party, the family gathering, which was straight after the pub.  I love home parties and planning the menus, and my philosophy for home is to incorporate traditional party foods, with a few healthier options on offer (a sushi/rice paper roll platter and fruit salad).  I don't try to mess with delicious traditions in an attempt to make them healthier, by substituting with spelt flour or coconut oil, I let everyone enjoy party foods as they are meant to be (other than the colours).  At least if you some of the options are home-made it will help with reducing the level of processing and intake of additives.  As a dietitian I sometimes feel a bit of pressure, or feel like I am being judged by what I provide at children's parties, or in their lunchboxes for that matter......but in the end it comes down to enjoying a range of food and avoiding 'good' or 'bad' food labels with youngsters who are developing their relationship with food. 

So in summary I think parties are great!   Traditional party foods are fun, watch the artificial stuff though and maybe throw in a few healthier options as the kids may actually enjoy them.  Or they may be so busy they don't eat much at all.  Occasional party foods are totally fine, HOWEVER, the big issue is that young children can end up going to A LOT of parties.  If you are going to a party nearly every weekend, all those party food add up, and that's where I can see the value in providing healthier party foods.  But how do you know how many parties your guests are going to that weekend?  My strategy this year to help the parents out was to only put a small number of lollies in the lolly bags so that what is eaten at the party is done at the party, and the sugar intake doesn't continue on for weeks after via lolly bags bursting at the seams.  My boys have about 4 lolly bags in the cupboard that they are gradually trying eat their way through, one lolly at a time! 

The important thing is for everyone to enjoy the party, from planning, to preparation, to playing!  Your decision to provide more or less healthy options will depend on a range of factors individual to you and your guests.  Make choices that create the least amount of stress and maximum amount of fun!

 

5 secrets of the French - how to eat the foods you like and not gain fat

Believe it or not, it is possible to eat whatever food you like and not put on weight.  Lots of people do it.  French people have perfected it. Although there are a few conditions.

My title is a little misleading, the French aren't really keeping anything secret, they showcase their remarkable way of life to every visitor who crosses their borders.  They eat beautiful, fresh, amazing food.  Some nutrient-rich, some not.  First impressions of French food don't usually remind you of 'clean eating' (for want of a better term), but somewhat surprisingly their everyday way of life is conducive to good health and managing weight well.  The graph below compares the trends in obesity in different countries.  Many countries are on the increase, including France, but they are starting at a lower waist measurement, and are a long way from catching the US or Australia.  Remarkable really when you think of all those croissants, pastries and creamy sauces.  If the French can maintain their traditional food culture and customs this will help to keep them at the bottom of this graph, but as fast food culture infiltrates this may see their country sloping further and further towards the top. 

Obesity trends in selected OECD countries, source:  www.oecd.org/

Obesity trends in selected OECD countries, source: www.oecd.org/

So what are the secrets of the French that has been keeping their obesity rate around half that of Australia?

1) Small portions

Number one habit of the French that works every time - small portions.  I truly believe that how much we eat is more important than what we eat when it comes to weight management.  Not as important for health perhaps, as 1500 calories worth of chocolate and sweets per day is not going to be all that sustaining or nutritious.  The foods that make up your portions are important for keeping you full and also to give your body nutrients, but getting the volumes right is key.  In France they enjoy their pastries, breads (white!), cream, cheeses, wine and rich, rich sauces but they also eat salads and vegetables.  Most of their food is served petite. 

 

Image courtesy of  www.ribbonsandbowscakes.com.au

I am not claiming that there is not one person in France who is overweight or overeats.  With an obesity rate in 2012 at 15% and overweight 32%, the French are still considered the thinnest people in Europe and doing better than most developed countries.  

Eating less is not all the French do well...... 

 

2) Enjoy and savour food - eat slowly and sit

Everyone is busy and it seems very few family meals are enjoyed at the traditional dining table, sharing news of the day and a delicious home-cooked meal.  The French have refined the art of sitting down (often at a café facing the footpath) to enjoy a coffee or something to eat.  French children are more likely to sit down to a hot lunch rather than a sandwich, with a small dessert to follow, which may in fact be fruit of some description.  When we eat on the run we usually eat quickly and don't have time to think about the flavours and textures, or how much we are consuming.  Eating out of a bag or a packet is common, while eating from a plate has greater benefits.  If you put your food on a plate you can see exactly how much there is, and using utensils also helps to slow down the rate of consumption.  You may yourself have been shocked by tipping a take-away carton of noodles or curry onto a plate and realising the sheer volume that was about to go into your stomach.  Eating from a plate will help to reduce your portions.  If we are eating while doing something else, like working on the computer or sitting on the couch in front of the tv, then we are also eating mindlessly and this increases the speed we eat and the likelihood of over-eating.  Sitting down to eat a meal and focusing solely on the food and our dinner companions is worth the time and effort.    

3) Meticulous preparation

French people take the time to eat, and perhaps this is because they are admiring what they are about to enjoy.  Just think of a French pattiserie and the sparkling clear glass cabinets full of intricately designed and crafted pastries and cakes.  The structure and artistic appeal is of equal importance to flavour.  Petit fours is a French term meaning 'small oven', as these miniature sweet morsels were traditionally made in a small oven next to the main larger oven.  Most enjoyment of food is in the first couple of bites, and in France they recognize this.  What is the point of having a huge piece of chocolate cake, all the one flavor, when you can have a range of different flavours and food experiences.  Nothing is just slapped onto the plate in France, pride is taken in food preparation and presentation.  Not everyone's lifestyle can accomodate hours in the kitchen, but allocating a small amount of time to improving your food skills and making food look nice can make eating so much more fun, and help your health and weight at the same time.

4) Mealtimes are for eating

It seems that the French eat their food at mealtimes and don't rely on too much snacking for their daily nutrients.   I don't really know why there is less snacking, but eating a 'proper' meal at lunch may mean that hunger in the afternoon is less of an issue?  Three square meals per day won't suit everybody, but it may be a useful strategy for reducing overall calorie intake, as the types of foods we eat between meals are often higher-calorie and lower-nutrient density than the type of foods we eat for main meals.

5) Good habits start early

Most of the food habits described above begin during childhood in France.  The child obesity rate in France has historically been one of the lowest in the world, while in other developed countries children are becoming more and more overweight.  If you want to learn more, check out this post by Karen Billon  'French Kids Don't Get Fat' which is a terrific insight into the eating patterns of French children.

 

Although we can't all move to France to live, we can make the effort to understand some of their everyday habits and apply them to our own lifestyles and eating patterns.  With Christmas and associated food-related celebrations ahead, there is no better time to start thinking about your own choices.  Portions really are the key, whilst enjoying a range of nutritious foods eaten for pleasure. Bon apetit!! 

 

   

 

 

 

 

Why dietitians are great dinner companions

'I don't want to eat in front of you!' she says, as our meals come to the table.  Eating out for dinner with friends can be an interesting experience when your job involves nutrition.  'I can't eat this while you are here, I'll feel guilty' is another common response that I've heard many times over the years.   Some people have a real fear that I am going to be analyzing their every bite and they will be overwhelmed with guilt and anguish about their choices.  Some people couldn't give two hoots and tuck into their parma and chips with not a care in the word about who is watching, but apparently a percentage of the population cannot stand to eat in the presence of a dietitian, their dining experience ruined.

If you have eaten with a dietitian before you will most likely have found that he or she is more interested in perusing the menu , making their own selections and enjoying their own meal than having any concern about what you are eating.  Wow, that sounds particularly selfish doesn't it?  I love working as a dietitian because I love food and eating, and I am of course intrigued by what people eat and why.  But if you are out for a dinner with me, you can choose whatever you like, I am certainly not going to judge you or embarrass you for the choices you make, and I most likely won't even think twice about your meal.  Besides, even if you happened to choose the most fatty and sugary food on the menu, it is only one meal....which means absolutely nothing in the scheme of things.   If I ate out for dinner with you three times per week and you were choosing a 3-course meal of fried entrees, creamy pastas and rich desserts every time then I may take a small mental note, but as a one off meal I am not really all that concerned. 

I love eating out with my dietitian friends.  I know what you are thinking, I love it because we can order quinoa with kale and a side of lettuce, but this couldn't be further from the truth.  I love eating out with dietitians because we can eat out without being judged.  It works both ways.  People may worry about what dietitians think about their choices, but dietitians often experience far from positive feedback on their choices along the lines of 'You shouldn't be eating that, should you?' or 'I didn't think you would eat that?' or the worst one 'Of course you would order the salad!!".  Eating with other dietitians means you can choose the healthier option if you want to, or not, with no comments, disappointments or stereotyping.  Dietitians love to share different dishes to try new things, so eating with them is fun.  FYI contrary to popular belief, dietitians love buffets, so many amazing foods to try!  Although I must admit that the behaviour of a dietitian at a buffet may be slightly different to the image of an overweight person at a budget US All-You-Can-Eat style establishment. 

So, do dietitians eat dessert?  Personally, I am someone who reads the dessert menu first and then I choose my main meal accordingly.  If I like the look of something for dessert, I don't want be too full from my main and not be able to choose dessert IF I FEEL LIKE IT.   The 'if' is the key word there, and important to consider when you are eating any meal and thinking about whether you need seconds or another course.  Remember, if you see a dietitian choosing a lighter style meal like a chicken salad for main, don't be fooled, it may mean they are saving room for dessert.  Although to be honest, with the serving sizes of meals in many restaurants these days it is not unusual to feel too full from the main to want a dessert.  This is where I could launch into a discussion about mindful eating, but Dr Rick Kausman already does a pretty good job of that.  Hunger awareness and consideration of whether or not you really want or need that extra serve is something worth working on.

Sometimes I feel like dessert, sometimes I don't (and sometimes I just don't feel like paying $14 for a slice of cake).  If I decline dessert, I admit that I do have that annoying female habit of asking for 'just one bite' of someone else's dessert, and this often surfaces during the food envy stage when other desserts come out.  My favourite desserts when eating out don't quite fit the image at the start of this post, ie. fruit salad.  It is also important to declare that I am not eating out overly frequently, which impacts on my likely intake and choices, but when it is an option I love a fresh lemon tart (that is quite 'tart'), a basic cheesecake (no fruit purees or salted caramel please) or sticky date pudding with ice-cream, not cream, (or if available just a small piece of caramel slice).  I often go halves.  A fair percentage of the enjoyment of food is in those first few bites, and I think that's why my dietitian friends love to share different dishes.....you can get a whole range of food experiences and enjoyment without necessarily over-doing the portions.   On a side note, it's so interesting that the more you pay for a meal the less you get.....probably better for your health to fine dine infrequently than go for a cheaper pub meal every week.

So relax and enjoy eating out with a dietitian, and if you feel like sharing a dessert with someone, ask the dietitian, they just could be the one at the table most likely to help you out.  Or if you order a whole one, move away from the dietitian as they are probably the most likely to try and steal a spoonful.

* Note - these views are based on my personal experiences, I cannot speak for the views of all dietitians, but I can comment about what I know about my dietitian friends.  I welcome comments if other dietitians feel differently.